The Dreaded “Angst”

      9 Comments on The Dreaded “Angst”

Steven den Beste and Ubu Roi have been conducting a spirited debate on their blogs about Shakugan no Shana. (Ubu’s posts are here and here; Steven doesn’t have permalinks for his posts but you can read his review here.)

To summarize and oversimplify: Steven was initially enthralled by the horror/adventure story, but was greatly annoyed by the inclusion of “high school angst.” Ubu agreed that “angst” is bad but argued that the adventure story is only background; the “real” story is about Shana’s character development and personal growth. (I agree with Ubu, but most people are going to watch it for the adventure story. The personal growth story takes extra effort to follow since Shana and several of the other key characters are not open about their feelings.)

But this got me interested in the whole question of “angst”. Practically everyone who writes about anime (or at least every male who writes about anime) agrees that this is a bad thing. But what is it exactly, and what is so bad about it?

In Shana it involves characters obsessing about their love lives while apocalyptic events are going on. So maybe it’s fair to say that “angst” involves characters getting emotional and obsessive about things that the reviewer considers unimportant. And perhaps we should say that this is something that anime writers should avoid.

But real teenagers do obsess constantly about their love lives, and most adults observing them would say that they are being stupid and totally lack any sense of proportion. Then the same adults, often enough, go out and do something equally stupid. A teenaged girl may eat a gallon of ice cream because she can’t get a date. A 40 year old man may get so upset that his wife has left him that he goes out and does something that earns him a long prison sentence.

These irrational feeling are part of the human condition. To a large extent our character is defined not by whether we feel them, but by how well we deal with them.

Thus I don’t think that we should make a rule that “angst is bad.” It would be difficult to write a story involving significant character development without some angst. Yes these feelings are stupid, but it is through dealing with stupid miserable feelings that real people really do develop their characters.

This shouldn’t be a carte blanche. Obviously there can be “bad angst.” I can think of cases where it caused me to feel contempt for a character that I was supposed to sympathize with. (I try to make allowances for a character’s youth and inexperience, but I will only go so far.) Even if it doesn’t make us hate the character, if it fails to advance the the story by leading to some real character development, then it is merely an imposition on the audience. (Perhaps there are viewers who enjoy this sort of thing and consider it an end in itself; but I can’t speak for them.)

To get back to the original topic, in the case of Shana I think the angst is largely justified because it advances the character development. In particular it motivates Shana to work harder at becoming human. Your mileage may vary.

9 thoughts on “The Dreaded “Angst”

  1. Pete Zaitcev

    I suspect that it may be a matter of perception and demographic, or even the definition of “entertainment”. A number of popular anime series are not comedic or not primarily comedic. Haibane Renmei is 1/3 angst.

  2. Jonathan Tappan Post author

    Which brings to mind…I was just listening to Idylls of the King and noticed that the whole Arthurian cycle is at least 2/3 angst. It’s all about powerful, successful people doing incredibly stupid things when they damn well know better, and with disastrous consequences. So why has it remained popular for so many centuries?

  3. Jonathan Tappan Post author

    After thinking about it I’m going to answer my own question. The Arthurian stories tell of great men (and women) destroyed by their own character flaws. That’s the classical definition of tragedy, which many people enjoy (for whatever reason.)

    On the other hand, a story about a not-so-great man destroyed by his own character flaws would at best be farce.

    Which sheds light on why I think the angst in Shana is justified. Shana is a heroic figure, but she is in danger of being destroyed by her own character flaws. That gives her internal struggles dramatic significance, even though her feelings are naive and immature.

    Kazumi’s angst is less interesting since she is a very weak character, at least initially. However she does show some personal growth over the course of the story, so it’s not at total loss.

  4. ubu roi

    “The Arthurian stories tell of great men (and women) destroyed by their own character flaws. That’s the classical definition of tragedy”

    As I pointed out, it’s not just Shana that’s flawed. Her flaws stem directly from her upbringing by Wilhelmina and Alastor. The saving grace to the use of angst in the story is that it wasn’t just teens wallowing in it — both of Shana’s (effectively) foster parents were forced to confront that they’d failed her — and that their own character flaws were part of the problem.

  5. DrmChsr0

    Look Steven, we all know you can’t stand a good story. Good character development probably gives you heartburn, and Any series with a well-written plot plus appropriate exposition would probably land you in a hospital, frothing at the mouth, requiring medical attention.

    Go back to watching the things you enjoy, and don’t diss the work of scriptwriters. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the water.

  6. Jonathan Tappan Post author

    I don’t like to censor comments, but I also don’t like the tone of the last one. Please try to express your opinions without resorting to personal attacks.

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